What are Malaysians in London famous for except Battersea Power Station, Genting Casinos and authors (umm, that would be me)? Meet young comedy genius, Nigel Ng from Kuala Lumpur, an award-winning stand-up comedian. He performs at comedy clubs here and abroad. He won Amused Moose’s Laugh Off in 2016 and was selected to be part of the prestigious Pleasance Comedy Reserve in 2017. I watched hisMalaysian Sensation show at the Wandsworth Arts Fringe festival in 2018 on 13th May (the date of which is notorious only to Malaysians due to an unfortunate bloody event in our political history). I talked to him after the show, and was thrilled to jump into comfort chatting in Mandarin, which happens to be both our first languages.
How long have you been performing?
When did you decide to become a comedian?
I started at university and then I realised I was quite funny at parties. I was doing horribly for 3 years performing and 4 years in I thought to myself: “I think I can do this.” From then on I decided to go full time.
How did you parents react when you told them you’re not going to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, accountant?
(Laughs) They are Asian parents. To be fair they are quite cool with me doing anything I want as long as I am happy because I was the fist kid in the family to study abroad. I am the golden child.
Where did you go to University and what did you study?
In USA. Northwestern University. Engineering and philosophy.
How hard do you think it is for Asians to be represented in the comedy industry?
Maybe it is more uncommon. When I do smaller town gigs people think ‘oh that’s unusual, an Asian guy?!’ but then you go on stage you just have to show them you are funny and then they get over it. ‘OK he’s fine.’
Does comedy does bring people together?
They are willing to listen but if they are not listening you have to work a bit harder. Sometimes it does not work.
Maybe our (Asian) culture does not prize someone being outspoken or opinionated. Asian culture is about obedience and following the rules and is not focused on freedom of expression unlike Western cultures. But that is changing as Asians are going abroad and growing up in a Western environment too.
Tell us about your next project quickly.
I am recording for stand up central Comedy Central tomorrow (Monday 14 May), 6 minute set. My TV debut.
Nigel is performing many gigs in June in London and the South. Catch him if you can. You can get tickets from here. You can watch him Live at the Glee here (11min).
Chris Ramsey’s stand up central Comedy Central is filmed live at the Electric Ballroom in Camden.
He is also playing at the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Festival in August. He will be at Venue 85, Laughing Horse @City Cafe. Check him out here, if you are in Scotland!
I totally enjoyed the show, it was a great laugh and I was crying. Comedy is our single most successful arts and culture export as I keep telling everyone. Only Malaysians can do funny and upsetting at the same time.
Heart of Glass is a dark tale about obsession, greed and music. It is a pacy literary crime noir thriller exploring the darkness in human nature. It contains Realism, Drama, Tragedy, Horror and Gothic elements. It is loosely naturalistic as a genre, which means the narrative style is straightforward American vernacular prose about mundane things in a way seemingly devoid of sentimentality, emotional investment or attachment. It is written in first person narrative. The characters are products of their environment and their upbringing, and they behave exactly as they please i.e. badly.
The character of Li-an is inspired by the titular character in Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola, a spoilt, immature beautiful woman who does one bad thing after another and another until she cannot stop. She is miserable from doing these things, yet she cannot stop. This is due to her naivete, selfishness, her lack of education and her greed.
Such a thing as a ‘good character’ is impossible to find in Thérèse Raquin as in Heart of Glass; there are just evil and less evil characters. In Thérèse Raquin, all characters are accomplices in some way or another of the murder of Camille, even Camille himself. As in Heart of Glass, all the characters are only concerned about themselves, their own interests. This leads them to cause crazy and intolerable situations in an endless chain of guilt-ridden activities. Survival is the main objective for each character. In Thérèse Raquin, death freed Thérèse and Laurent of their crime, and futile remorse after months of mutual hate and misbehaviour. In Heart of Glass, Paolo’s true love and forgiveness save Li-an and freed her from her obsessive and unreasonable behaviour. The other characters including Ben her accomplice and her Achilles heel, are all guilty or less guilty. Camille, Madame Raquin, Thérèse and Laurent are all victims and guilty; even secondary characters can be accused of selfishness looking just for self-satisfaction.
Emile Zola is one the finest voices in literature and one of my heroes: “I have simply done on two living bodies the kind of analysis that surgeons do on dead bodies.” He aims to strip away the usual literary polite nonsense of describing people to get at the truth of “the human mechanism”. Hence Zola writes about brutality without judgement, without contempt. As a writer what I have written about in Heart of Glass has no sermon, no moral code. The clue is in the title. Warning label: Heart of Glass may shock.
I am not attempting to pass judgement or inflict my own values. The human problem is not of God and morality. It is of the psychological condition. The reader will be coming along for the ride to experience the horrors and the brutality as my characters and I experience them. The reader is trapped inside a world of despair and desperation of the bad character, the human beast. The idea is to explore the beastly character who gets worse and worse until her heart changes what it desires.
Which brings me to the final point: is there redemption in crime noir or crime writing? What if there is none? What if there is no solution to evil, no Jesus, no Buddha, no saints in this story, only sinners?
Because it is very stupid. I could be doing a million other things, enjoyable things, non enjoyable things, things which could even make money.
As I am approaching 41K WC of my FD WIP*, I begin question my own sanity again. I do not know what it is that makes me write. I really hate it. Like Dorothy Parker says, I hate writing but I like having written. I did not choose writing. Writing chose me. (why, or why didn’t banking or dentistry choose me???) When I first started doing it at age 8, I thought that this is what everybody did in their spare time and later on, as a youth and as an adult, I did it secretly, like it is drug, or self-harm. I knew it was bad but I carried on.
Why I am trudging along, still another half to go of this new novel:
a) I need more practice
b) I want to meet a community of writers, fellow-sufferers, cheerleaders, like-minded mentally ill people, deluded with same goal but different delusion people. I want to ‘join the club’,
c) I wrote two books and several short stories. My first novel and one of my short stories have won international awards. Other short stories were published. Now only I can see people value what I’m doing (“I think she can write”) therefore it is worth continuing. Readers I do not know in person tell me they like it or they hate it. But I have readers!
d) I need to improve my confidence because each day I wake up I have to start again vis a vis Groundhog Day effect. Ultimately goal is: to write everyday (making it a habit). Doesn’t matter good or bad.
e) it appeals to my vintage and frugal lifestyle. I am not a photographer or painter or classic car collector. You don’t need anything but a brain and a computer to write, so its saves space and expenses.
Yesterday (what wedding? You mean there was a wedding yesterday?) I wrote 821 words of my WIP. Woof! So here you have it. The reasons.
Carefully compiled footnote:
K= thousand WC = Word count FD = First draft WIP = Work in Progress
is an essay by Albert Camus. Sisyphus was the legendary king of Corinth in ancient Greece who was condemned to eternally rolling a rock to the top of a mountain. The stone would fall back of its own weight and he has to start again. They thought that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.
The central theme
of the Myth of Sisyphus is what Camus calls “the absurd” because Sisyphus’ punishment is representative of the human condition: Sisyphus must struggle perpetually and without hope of success. So long as he accepts that there is nothing more to life than this absurd struggle, then he can find happiness in it, says Camus.
What it means to be a writer
is in the last line of the essay: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The perpetual struggle is happiness in itself. There is no more. You roll this enormous, accumulating mass of paper to the top of this mountain and you let it go. And you start again. Camus’ theory is that Sisyphus is happy because what else is he? Camus calls him the “proletarian of the gods”. Sisyphus is the hero of writers and the reason why writers have to live in the absurd and write. The struggle is real.
Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018. She is fond of all struggles but tackles them one boulder at a time.
I dreaded forcing myself and my eyes to look up the term Renaissance woman and read the definition because although I suspect I already knew what it meant I wanted it confirmed, like bad news.
Being proficient at many things was something I saw as a negative aspect to my character especially as I am only greeted with shock and fear: “I didn’t know you are a …” insert whatever. “Is there anything you can’t do?” “What else are you doing?” “Why do you do all these things?” “When do you do all these things?” It is because of that terrible saying Jack of All Trades and Master of None. Also, that ridiculous term ‘juggling’ is often bandied about. I have no reply to these kind of questions because they are rhetorical questions and leave me speechless.
So really, I have to face the music. It’s time to give you the facts.
1/ Renaissance Woman does not like to be asked ‘Is there anything you can’t or don’t do’
Of course there are my dear. How can I do more than 4 things at once? I really only do architecture, writing, sewing and play musical instruments. I don’t do pole dancing, sports, any sports, plastering, electrical work, plumbing, maintenance or fixing of any mechanical or electrical item such as motors, anything involving a solenoid or AC supply, valves, anything medical, ice skating, skiing, did I already mention sports, spreadsheets, databases, accounts. There are too many. Do you really think that all skills belong to all?
2/ Renaissance woman always tries her best
Doesn’t matter what it is or if she is terrible at it. “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” (have you heard this saying?) This is actually the motto of the Renaissance woman. Giving it your best shot. You have one life. Make every moment count. This is the moment. This is the day. etc. You have heard it all before. They are all cliches. Even things I am terrible at: housework, cooking, baking, ballet – I do a thorough job of it, or not at all.
3/ Renaissance woman is not a Wonder Woman, Superhuman or any fantasy character
She fights colds, craves sugar and feels fed up like everybody else. And one day when she is dead she hopes some admin staff will still be running this page or at least a page that says Error 404 Page Not Found, so that you will know that everybody eventually dies, even the Renaissance woman, because after all she is not a superhuman nor immortal. The house is always dirty or messy because one cannot do it all. Something’s gotta give and it’s not Hollywood.
4/ Renaissance woman is hardworking
There is no question about it. You have do do time.
Architecture – 30,000 to 60,000 hours as I have only been doing it since Uni, and I say only but because of how long ago since I qualified in it and practised in it, it has clocked up that number of hours. I can’t understand people who (obviously don’t know me) ask me ‘How do/did you do it?’ I am a professional! Time is how you do it.
Piano – 40,000 hours. I have been playing since early childhood, was also in a band which involved severe serious practising all the time, every day for many years.
Writing – 25,000 hours. I have been writing since I could write.
Sewing – 10,000 hours. I have been sewing with my grandmother and aunts since I was a child. The moment I could hold a needle without stabbing myself or someone else, I was given tasks.
If you spent at least 10,000 hours playing tennis since childhood you would be a tennis champion.
There is no magic. If people think you are born with God-given talent and then suddenly you’re a whizz at everything at an adult age, they must be crazy and must be subjected themselves to 10,000 hours’ training in something.
5/ Renaissance woman must have hobbies
Naturally, being a busy, hardworking person, mother, wife, worker, writer, architect, seamstress and musician and having spent 10,000 hours on the main things, one cannot be expected to not enjoy one’s downtime with hobbies. The Renaissance woman has lesser activities in order to relax. These usually have nothing to do with the main courses. These are just snacks or desserts for example ballet, makeup art, decluttering, re-organization of rooms, cardio exercises and the aforementioned items in 2/ which she is not so good at. For example I only very recently started cardio, guitar and ballet, therefore I am still terrible at them and totally not proficient.
Cardio: 240 hours
Ballet: 100 hours
Guitar: 800 hours
You may have multiple streams of income, you may not. You may have professions, hobbies, sidelines, main courses, snacks. Whatever your flow, go forth and multiply your interests. You will not regret it. The worst that can happen is you spent 10 hours on it not 10,000. Even so it is not a failure. Learning does not exhaust the mind, it grows the mind. Anyway, so what if I fail, I have failed and I will fail and fail again, I will fail better each time!
We all have so many talents and gifts, we may have just suppressed them because of the way we have been conditioned and brought up. You have no idea of the power of the human mind and humanity. You have time. We all do. In fact, time is all we have on earth.
This beautiful and inspirational quote from the maestro of the Renaissance himself reminds us:
“Time abides long enough for those who make use of it.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Are you a Renaissance Woman or Man? What do you think of multiple interests and multi-tasking? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, join my mailing list or email me with your comments and feedback. As usual I would love to hear from you.
My aim had always been to be a published author. I have achieved my aim. Now what? Writing a novel or two is the biggest time, energy and mental pressure you can undertake. In fact to write this blog post I had to take two Nurofen and a double espresso macchiato in order to steady myself. I have been writing for 40 years on and off, therefore I am not a new writer. But I still put wine, blood, paracetamol, sweat, caffeine, cortisol, endorphins and tears into it. Now I have learned that as a newly-published author, I still have more to learn.
1/ Sales of the book won’t make you a living.
Even bestseller authors have to work another job – usually related to writing such as journalism or teaching and lecturing in a related subject. The reason why writers write is because it is an incurable mental illness, an obsession, a love. It’s like asking the obsessive compulsive cleaner – “hey, why do you clean so much? It’s clean already.” Those who start out thinking this is a fun hobby will either quit or realise it is not a fun hobby, and then quit. If that obsession is there, the writer will carry on writing in spite of everything. That is how you know you have the bug.Therefore no writers can aim to do it as a means of livelihood, as they mostly earn less than the minimum wage. In the Guardian article ‘Most UK authors’ annual incomes still well below minimum wage‘ on 9 Oct 2016,
…life is less than super for many authors in the UK, with average annual incomes for writers languishing at £12,500.
This figure is just 55% of average earnings in the UK, coming in below the minimum wage for a full-time job at £18,000 and well below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s minimum income standard of £17,100.
In an industry that is becoming increasingly unequal, those at the bottom of the income distribution continue to struggle. Only half of the 317 UK authors who responded to the survey said writing was their main source of income, with respondents who offered a figure reporting total earnings from their latest book averaging at £7,000.
This is not a ‘new thing’. Writers we know and love from the past also had to hold day jobs:
Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and other “literary nonsense,” was also a mathematician, photographer and teacher.
Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” taught in New York City high schools and colleges during his entire career.
Jorge Luis Borges Argentinian author of “Ficciones” worked as an assistant in the Buenos Aires Municipal Library, and eventually became the director of the National Library.
2/ What you wanted to publish will not be published and what you didn’t want to publish will be published
Caveat: Unless you self-published. No building is built exactly as the plans, unless you built it yourself. Publishing is a collaborative process. You are only one cog in the wheel and no doubt the most important cog but there are other cogs turning that wheel. There will be changes along the way, usually due to budget, darling-killing and changes of vision. This is down to the contract. The contract is the agreement between you and the publisher to create the book. Both you and the teams will work together and have a say in the end product. You can put your foot down but usually they are right. They are the professionals. My day job is being an architect. I tell my clients what they should do all the time and if they don’t do it, I will do it anyway. Otherwise you will have no overall cohesive design ethos and you will end up with substandard junk which you will get blamed for so you may as well get blamed for something great than some substandard junk caused by them.
When you hand over the manuscript, the multiple levels of editing begin. At the moment I am coming out of editing hell, and this is why it is fresh in my mind and I am well-equipped to inform those who have not entered the seven gates of editing hell. Every sentence, punctuation marks and word will be examined. Every sentence has to flow logically into the next and there must not be a single discrepancy, inconsistency, continuity error or nonsensical or cop-out statement. You must not sound like a madman. Even books about madness are written by the sane, and has to appear compos mentis. The editing process is like ironing. You go back and forth and back and forth between the editorial department and you until the product is smooth. My first book has gone through 19 rounds of editing (not even accounting for the 12 years of editing before those rounds before I made any submissions). My second book is currently on 9 rounds (also excluding the years of my own editing). Sometimes you are blind to your own errors because you have seen them too many times and you don’t realise they are actual errors.
3/ You wrote the book and and now you do everything else
A big deal for little words
Nowadays publishers want to know how many followers you have before they even take you on.This is why anything that Jamie Oliver or Joe Wicks write will sell, will have a publisher. Their follower count is in the millions. If only 10% bought their books, that is still a substantial earner. I had to learn this while pitching my book. The Unbound pitch has questionnaire questions relating to your network, real or virtual. If the publisher likes your brilliant book, they also like, in the back of their minds, your follower count and your social media platforms.
Because of the competitive and declining market these days, in order to be successful, most writers have to work hard at promoting their own books much more than the publisher. This is because there are too many books, put simply. Because they are a business, they have to take on a lot of books in case a few become ‘hits’, the rest can die, no worries. One publisher has to handle between 10 to 40 books each, and though they are spread out through the year, they have to promote all of them. Naturally their focus is divided. If you had 36 children (at the rate of 3 being born a month) you will also not be able to give much attention to each.
4/ You are your own Book and Blog Tour Organizer
Of course you can get on a plane. You will get what you pay for, and touring around the world is expensive and you may only sell twelve copies, if any. You might sell one. I have not much motivation in touring as I have been a musician with my band Satsuma and the gigs take an enormous amount of time loading and unloading, driving around, soundchecking, eating backstage, not to mention hair and makeup and the actual rehearsals, even when you have a cold and in all kinds of weather conditions – all for a 22 minute gig (if you are the headlining act) in which you are not sure if anybody will turn up if the weather is terrible. Therefore authors have to use effective internet marketing such as virtual book tours. There are very few real bookshop or real events being offered by publishers. I am now involved in a ‘blog tour’ with five of my fellow Unbound author whom I see as friends, colleagues and associates. It is a ‘tour’ where we move around and each write for each other’s site in a guest post on set dates. It’s very enjoyable and I am traveling the world from my armchair, involving no Bureaux de Change or visas queues. I have just completed writing my blog about Bill Colegrave’s Scraps of Wool, on the golden age of travel writing focusing on Central Asia, Indochina and the Maghreb (read the blog post here). Scraps of Wool was published recently by Unbound and shares the same publication date asmy debut – 16 November 2017. Also completed is Carrie Jo Howe’sIsland Life Sentence which is fiction set in Florida. You cannot get more destinations than these in four weeks, what more do you want from a tour?
5/ You are your own Launch Party Sponsor/Organizer/Host
Launch parties are for fun and they do not lead to sales. Only because people don’t want to carry a book while munching on greasy snacks with one hand and holding a drink in the other hand. There is no hand left for the book. Even successful authors have to throw their own parties, if they can be bothered. If they are successful they would have been to and done a lot of parties already so they may be partied out.
I put my own money into the London launch of my short story “Funny Mountain” in Hungry in Ipoh anthology held at my friend Sunita’s and Rufus’ art gallery Knight Webb Gallery in Brixton. If you are interested you can read the blow by blow account of how I did It, where I bought cheap drinks and so on. I even brought in the snacks and my friend Sunita kindly heated up the snacks in the vintage oven. Being a writer means there has to be family and friends who care about you being in fantasyland and living the writer life. You are not some banker. Even if you were, they will wonder why you need any help, but still help you. The party will be for them too. It is not for getting new people in, not for selling books, it is for thanking your own loved ones, your publisher. Without them, you would not be a writer. They may or may not buy your books, read your books but it does not matter. Most of all they know you want to be a writer, and they will want to celebrate with you. They will help you with the launch. You only need to ask.
View towards front of gallery
6/ Be grateful… the party has just begun
Being a published author means the party is not over…. the party has just begun! Long live writing and publishing. Do not get sucked in to what other writers are doing or not doing and feel you are not doing enough or you are doing too much. Your job as a writer is to write the best bloody book that you can. Your job is not to sell stuff, do ironing, be a bartender, organize events or do catering. Every writer is different and thank God for that. Know and recognize what you have achieved. Remember how hard it was to get published (camel, eye of needle etc)? For me to get my first novel out took 12 years, 89 rejections and an award. It is a feat and a celebration in itself. Every day I remind myself that I have earned my right to exist as an author, to tell the story that had to be told, in the way that I wanted it told, so that now it exists not just on my hard drive but in the world. It was what I fought hard for.
Are you a published author? How do you think you have been transformed by the experience? If you are unpublished, what are your expectations of being published? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share and do drop me a line. As usual I would love to hear from you.
South London, are we ready? I am coming straight out of my garret to read from my new award-winning debut, CRY OF THE FLYING RHINO, at the Brixton Book Jam, on Monday 5 March 2018 7:30pm at The Hootananny. (95 Effra Road, London SW2 1DF) – a large pub with a performance space that can hold 600 people. It also provides cooked food. The closest tube station is Brixton (Victoria line) and buses 2, 3, 415, 432 and 196 will transport you very near to the venue. Guess what, it’s FREE to attend!
This will be the FIRST TIME that I am reading aloud from this book and answering any burning questions you may have about it or about me.
During the intervals, resident DJ Andy Carstairs will spin melodic stylings from his hard drive. Check out The Hootananny. See Brixton Book Jam for detailed biogs of each author and his/her book description.
Somerset Maugham famously said that there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen
should be read with caution. It is, like all other writing books, a How To book that is a How Not To, which means it shows and not tells you via anecdotes and countless examples of great literature, broken down into a structured and systematic analysis what is essentially the magical and unknown journeys we take when we read and when we write. It is a tour de force of all your favourite books in one and why they are. The content page alone is proof that editor and author Richard Cohen has attempted to turn the business of creative writing into practical advice.
Reading about the writing business is an illness that you already know too well, like flu or cold symptoms. For me, it is also a secret and guilty passion because in my heart, I know that you will never know what a great book is until it is a great book so how can this magic, this art be unravelled?
You recognise the symptoms of the infection straightaway. When you start reading a book about writing, they all tell you the same thing, and that is, all books begin in the same way:
“the opening paragraph, the whole question of starting off right. Thereafter the chapters are roughly organized according to the creative process. How characters are created seems paramount – most often, a character will stay with us long after the particular story has faded away – but how does one give them life? What names does one bestow, how much of a back story should be included?”
Can you teach creative writing?
The question is raised in the preface. Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian on 4 March 2014 famously said you can’t. “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” he said.
“A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ “
He also says that 99.9% of his students are not talented and the little bit who are left are. If skill comes with talent, then the skill can be taught and improved but the original talent still has to be present. That is why when all else fails, writing is referred to as a craft, akin to knitting a jumper or wood-whittling. If it is crude and wrongly-made, that’s just tough. You have to make it again and again until proportionally, structurally and aesthetically it is just right. There is no magic in it.
The short-lived Brendan Behan (1923-64) described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”.
“He was invited by a prestigious American university to deliver an afternoon lecture about his craft. Behan’s reputation as boozer and rabble-rouser meant that the lecture hall was filled to capacity with students standing at the back and perched in the aisles, but the appointed hour came and went, with still no sign of the great man. Time laboured on; the stage remained empty. After forty-five minutes or so, a more than usually dishevelled Behan stumbled in, and the audience waited, in equal parts expectant, curious and alarmed. “Good afternoon,” he crooned. “Now hands up all of you who want to be writers.” Nearly everyone raised an arm. Behan viewed this forest with disgust. “Well, then,” said he. “Go on back home and frickin’ write.” With that, he reeled off the stage.”
Kurt Vonnegut who for many years was on the faculty of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, also believed that one could not make writers. He said he himself was like a golf pro who could at best “take a few shots off someone’s game”.
Hemingway said what must be a classic truism by now: the only way for a writer to learn his craft was to go away and write. Despite hours of tutorials from Gertrude Stein, Hemingway had to write to her: “Isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad. Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”
This different kind of bad confirms that the teaching of the craft only highlights how difficult it is to stand out or be original. Once you become a writer aware, you become writer beware. Although teaching writing and publishing is a big business now, with creative writing Masters programme costing thousands of dollars or pounds of fees, it always comes down to: but Dickens didn’t do an MA, neither did Hemingway, Atwood, Orwell, nor J K Rowling. In reality, no one did because it was only recently (in the last 20 years) that creative writing courses came to exist. There was no such thing before. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.
My MA in Writing at Middlesex University
From a personal viewpoint, I became a “professional” when I did my MA in Writing at Middlesex University. I was already a writer. Doing the course did not make me a writer (I had been writing since I could write i.e. from the age of 8 or 9). But it turned my writing from a noun into a verb. Before there was such a thing as MA in Writing, I attended a writing group, the City Lit Writers’ Club in the late 1990s. Being “taught” creative writing was the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I am a very small person physically and socially, so I feel I need to be part of a big organisation. It gave me confidence that more than one person (i.e. myself) liked my work. I know that writing is like fine arts, a self-taught interest/hobby/profession/career but I still believe that I need to be self-taught in a group. Most recently, I attended the London Lit Lab’s weekend workshop (a story in a weekend). I am still working on that same story now, editing and perfecting it. However, I would not have written 3000 words in a day had not been for the workshop where I was being “taught” to start writing from scratch after a long period of not writing.
Any university course aims to give you skills or to improve your skills, even more so a Writing MA. Cry of the Flying Rhino was born at Middlesex. Yes! It’s actually a North Londoner! Without having attended the MA at Middlesex, I could not have written the book I wanted to write, nor been granted the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, free of constraints, fear, guilt, grammar, market desirability and proverbial voices over the shoulder, free of boundaries of race, language, culture. A book that experimented with patois, multiple voices, a book that is pure literature. A book that ultimately, after 12 years of dormancy on my hard drive, was submitted for an international literary prize and won. Now that I have written two books and am writing my third, I would not hesitate to say that I was “taught” something: that an MA in Writing is the most freedom you will ever get as a writer.
What about George Orwell?
What about him? He is one of my literary heroes. Perhaps what I liked about his honesty and his writing was what he “taught” me, which is not to aim for popularity but to say what you want to say but make it clear:
“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
He began his career as a clumsy writer. At the age of 24 he moved into cheap lodgings in London, and was befriended by the distinguished poet Ruth Pitter. The two would go for long walks along the Embankment discussing his stories, or meet for dinner of a bottle of red plonk when she would give him unsparing criticism and therefore taught him to compose those stories even though the original gift for storytelling was in fact his own.
is formula, a template. The titular Leo Tolstoy once said all great literature is one of two stories. A man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
Naturally this is sexist and I shall avert my eyes. Man is generic. It could be a child or woman or a living thing. Sexism aside, it is not so simple. If it were, then there would not be so many narratives available.
Carlo Gozzi, an Italian playwright of the 18th century said there were 36 plots. 2004’s bestselling Seven Basic Plots won approval of many writers. Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton called it “a brilliant summary of storytelling.”
Rags to Riches
Voyage and Return
These are just nonsensical hashtags in my view. If there are only 7 then how come all the greatest books have all of the above?
Naturally I turned to this chapter first being someone who can’t, won’t and doesn’t write about sex. As it happens this is a very interesting chapter. It is not about erotica or pornography. “It’s nearly always best to avoid detailed descriptions or elaborate imagery” which is how one turns the writing about sex into erotica or pornography.
William F Buckley liked to recall a dinner with Vladimir Nabokov who told him that he was smiling because he polished off his OSS in that afternoon’s writing session.
What’s an OSS? asked Buckley.
Nabokov explained. Obligatory sex scene.
A depressing scenario is when writers put in a sex scene, badly-written because they hope it will boost sales, or win them popularity or whatever. Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a section for erotica and it is aptly called L’Enfer. Hell.
Shirley Conran, bonkbuster bestseller, subcontracts her erotic scenes to Celia Brayfield. Detachment from the characters is still a great way to get attached to them. The irony. Summary about writing about sex?
Writing about sex is a fine ambition but difficult to carry off successfully. Try, but be ready to junk the pages.
The Song of Songs, a long erotic poem, in the Old Testament has been described as the single most instructive example of how to write effectively about physical love. The second most successful love scene is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”:
Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed…
By this these Angles from an evil sprite,
Those set out hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America! My new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d…
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.
The advice in a nutshell is to use poetic licence. Language is still language. Do not describe body parts. Less is more. End of scene.
There is no need to recap or to sum up with a great statement of “wearisome” arguments already made. “When you have said what you want to say,
Thanks for reading this blog post! If you like South-east Asian and vintage arts and cultures, you will love my award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s. It is dark, macabre and thrilling, it has received a handful of five-star reviews already. And of course, it is stylish like you and I.
What were the inciting incidents which inspired Cry of the Rhino to become an award-winning novel? Asian Books Blog ran a 500 word article with answers and much more. I was also covered by the American author Robert Raymer in his insightful and entertaining blog, the Borneo Expat Writer. Robert and I interviewed each recently.
You can also read the article here below:
Cry of the Flying Rhino was written thirteen years ago after I made my one and only trip to Borneo with my mother. I was inspired by the dark, macabre and gothic nature of communal longhouse living and the tribal civilisation and culture which have been around for thousands of years. Two things triggered some ideas.
Firstly, during the trip, I saw a tattoo parlour called Headhunters. It piqued my interest in the traditional art and symbolism of Iban tattooing, performed manually with a hammer, steel pin and ink made from tree ash.
Secondly, long after our trip, I dreamt of a girl in a longhouse with eyes as huge as the “hollows of the benuah tree”. Those words came to me in the dream. I wrote them down. She looked sad and haunted and there was also terror in her eyes. I did not know who she was or what the dream was about but something unpleasant and unusual had happened to her and I set about finding out about the Iban culture, which I later discovered, is based on dreams. That dreams were everything, our hopes, work, happiness and luck.
In exploring the two triggers above, I found out that indigenous cultures are threatened and dying, because of loss of habitat due to logging and deforestation, and due to the conversion of the Ibans to other religions. As a result, orang asli (original people) like the Ibans are forced to leave their habitat for the city because their livelihood, dependent on being able to survive in the jungles on the fat of the land, is diminishing due to the jungles being cleared. Their way of life which is so rich in folklore, superstition and traditions will soon be lost. Ultimately the rapid destruction of the jungles will impact upon the rest of the world via climate change and so on. I also found out that children tattooed children which ensured that the art would never die. If adults were one day wiped out by an epidemic or a massacre, the surviving children would all have learned and mastered all survival and artistic skills including tattooing.
Cry of the Flying Rhino is a modern novel set in the railway town of Segamat, which has already been deforested and turned into miles of plantation, and Borneo, whose jungles are under threat. The Chinese GP, Benjie, has been forced to marry Talisa, a mysterious and tattooed teenager, and the adopted daughter of wealthy crass Scottish landowner Ian. Benjie has to discover for himself his wife’s true identity, when Minos and Watan, two Ibans who leave the jungle and appear in Segamat one day, looking for Talisa.
Cry of the Flying Rhino raises uneasy themes of identity, poverty, religion, race, greed, colonialism and post-colonial struggles, and deculturalisation because I want to convey to readers the issues and conflicts which affect Asia today using the medium of fiction. I hope the story will take them to another world.
Did anybody catch this on the BBC over the weekend? A terrible TV film about three Chinese girls in London called CHINESE BURN. The script is so shocking and racist I can’t believe it was made.
One has a permanent cleaver looking at little dogs to chop up and eat.
One is an out-of-work actress who auditions for endless prostitute or cleaner roles with kungfu thrown in.
One is a failed sommelier walking around as a human signboard for bubble tea, who gets molested by her Chinese boss but ends up giving him a hand job.
Very poor. None were empowered or normalised or fit into society as they were terrible cliches and stereotypes of people who don’t even exist, like pulling their eyes into slits. It’s like the writers went: “Hey I know! Why challenge stereotypes when we can reinforce them? This is a great idea. Let’s call it diversity, heh heh! Just throwing that word in for luck. Let’s create hideous characters, the dregs of humanity. Not an ounce of delight or warmth. Let’s call them Chinese girls.”
OK that is my TV review. Apparently it’s a comedy too but it’s not funny at all. Will black people or white people find this funny? I am a very humorous person too – people tell me I am a funny girl. But this show is stupid and not funny.
How are we supposed to move forward when we are moving back all the time? We as in everybody, not just Chinese girls. We as in scriptwriters, writers, thinkers, workers, doers, the Beeb. I am waiting for something clever and funny. Not asking a lot, you see, just some eye candy while ironing.